The recent reburial of King Habibullah II – aka Habibullah Kalakani aka derogatively Bacha-ye Saqao (The Water Carrier’s Son) – that stirred up controversy and violence was another reflection of Afghanistan’s increasingly ethnicised politics. Competing narratives about historical events and the legacy of historical figures reflect deeper, underlying societal and political cleavages, both between ethnic groups and between conservatives and modernisers. To provide much-needed context, AAN’s Thomas Ruttig (with contributions by Ali Yawar Adili) has searched the literature for historical background about the person at the centre of this controversy.Reburial of Habibullah II (Kalakani) on Shahr Ara Hill. Photo: Pajhwok.
A ceremony, a standoff and a reburial
On 1 September 2016, scuffles broke out in Kabul’s Kolola Pushta neighbourhood. Shots were fired and people wounded. According to reports, one of the wounded later died. Those involved in the clashes largely belonged to two different ethnic groups – Uzbeks and Tajiks – who were at loggerheads over where King Habibullah II (1) and his associates, who had been executed in 1929, should be reburied.
In the morning, a memorial service held at Kabul’s Idgah mosque had been attended by a number of state officials and politicians. After that, around one thousand people – many of them armed – carried the coffins with Habibullah and his associates’ mortal remains (2) which had been unearthed earlier from a mass grave at the foot of Tapa-ye Maranjan (where Afghanistan’s former Pashtun rulers have their mausoleums), towards Shahr Ara Hill, west of the city’s central Shahr-e Now area. That’s when they ran into the opposing side.
The main objection of the Uzbek party was that they consider Shahr Ara Hill part of their “history and identity” – and that another place had been assigned to the burial party (who had asked for Shahr Ara first) but which was overruled by the crowd on the day itself. First Vice President Abdulrashid Dostum, an Uzbek, sent forces to block them, most likely militias of his party, also some of them armed. (Afghan TV stations showed that on live broadcast.)
After a long and tense standoff, a delegation of Tajik leaders went to Dostum and found a compromise: The reburial would go ahead on Shahr Ara Hill but its historical name would be preserved, princess Shahr Ara’s tomb there would be renovated by the government, and a religious school would be constructed elsewhere “at an appropriate site” and named after Habibullah Kalakani. Habibullah II’s mortal remains were then buried on Shahr Ara Hill around midnight, still on the day of the scuffles.
The initiative to provide Habibullah II and his lieutenants with a proper grave, on one hand aimed to posthumously restore his dignity. But it was also a clear attempt by the armed and politicised Tajik leadership – which includes well-known commanders from Habibullah Kalakani’s area of origin north of Kabul – to create another hero and rallying point for their ethnic group. (Their biggest and most recent hero is Ahmad Shah Massud, whose death is remembered every year on 9 September.) The by now familiar display of civil war paraphernalia (mixed civilian and military clothing and an open display of guns and knives) in the reburial procession showed that it was clearly intended as a display of force. The organisers had more in mind than simply setting the historical records straight, but rather aimed to send a clear message in the context of fresh grievances against what is seen as an increasingly Pashtun-dominated government. (More here about the NUG crisis.) (3) Also the vice-presidential leader of the Uzbek party is a member of that unbeloved government.
A historical hill
According to a number of sources (this one, for example), an aunt of Emperor Babur, Shahr Bano Begum, had created a garden on the hill known as Bagh-e Shahr Ara (The Garden Adorning the City). It is one of a number of Moghul gardens in the city – and beyond, established along the centuries-old Grand Trunk Road linking Kabul and Delhi – many of which, by now, have disappeared. (4) Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur, his full name, was a descendant of the Turco-Mongol dynasties of Chengiz Khan and the Timurids. Expelled from his native Ferghana valley, he conquered Kabul in 1504 and made it his capital. (Later, he was also buried there, in what now is known as the Babur Garden.) From there, he went on to conquer India where he established the ‘Moghul’ dynasty. One of his daughters, Shahr Ara, is also buried on Shahr Ara Hill (it is not clear whether the garden there was created before or after her death). After suffering damage and neglect during the recent wars, the Shahr Ara garden was rehabilitated and turned into Park-e Zanana (women’s park), a rare space in the city for women only (more here).
Afghanistan’s Uzbeks see themselves as descendants of Babur and his dynasty, which ruled over a large empire known for its splendour and cultivation for more than three hundred years. (5)
Habibullah Kalakani – from brigand to king
Habibullah II – or Habibullah Kalakani, as he is widely known after his area of origin, Kalakan, north of Kabul – was the first and only non-Pashtun to sit on the Afghan royal throne. (6) He took over power after a military assault on the Afghan capital on 17 January 1929, deposing reformer-King Amanullah. Amanullah, who represented a long-ruling Pashtun dynasty, had ruled since 1919 but was already weakened by other uprisings and the increasing resistance to his modernisation attempts that had been inspired by Turkey’s leader Atatürk.
Habibullah’s enemies, at the time, derided him for his relatively humble origins and called him Bacha-ye Saqao (Son of the Water Carrier) and “Bandit King.” Habibullah II had indeed been a bandit before he ascended the throne and, if one can believe his autobiography, took pride in this, even referring to himself as “the Bacha.” (7) When the ex-brigand from Kalakan was crowned by the Pir of Tagao, a Naqshbandi leader from the Tajik-majority areas north and northeast of Kabul (who also had crowned Amanullah), he received the sobriquet of Khadem-e Din-e Rassul-e Allah (Servant of the Religion of the Messenger of Allah).
Habibullah’s father, Rashid, whatever his original profession, worked as a gardener in the vineyard of Muhammad Hussain Khan in Kabul’s Qala-je Murad Beg neighbourhood. This Hussain Khan, a Safi Pashtun from Kohistan, was first made khan of that area – of which Kalakan is a part – by Amir Abdul Rahman Khan (1880–1901) and became Amir Habibullah I’s treasurer in 1904 (mustaufi al-mamalek). Details of Habibullah Kalakani’s early life come from a semi-documentary novel titled Eyar-i az Khorasan (A Brigand from Khorasan) by Khalilullah Khalili (1907–87) He was Hussain Khan’s son and became sha’er ul-shu’ara (poet laureate) at the Afghan court in the 1960s. (8)
Habibullah was born in 1890 in Sara-ye Khoja in the Kalakan area of Kohdaman, on the southern slopes of the Hindu Kush mountains, just north of Kabul. According to Tajik historian Kamoludin Abdulloev, who turned Khalili’s book into a web-based biographical note, Habibullah was illiterate. He “had not even finalised his education at the madrassa” and helped his father with the work in the vineyard. He was also a murid (follower) of the Sufi Naqschbandi Pir of Gulbahar named Shams-ul-Haq Mujaddedi Kohestani.
The young man joined the army and, according to Leon Poullada (see FN 3), served in a model unit under the command of Turkish officers which had been called into the country under Amanullah’s father, Amir Habibullah (who ruled 1901–19). After Amanullah took over the throne in 1919 due to his father’s assassination, Habibullah fought in the short Third Anglo-Afghan War in that same year. Ironically, this was under the command of General Muhammad Nader Khan who, in October 1929, would topple him and later have him executed.
According to Abdulloev, Habibullah – together with many of his ham-watanan in predominantly Tajik-inhabited Shemali, Kohestan and Kohdaman – sympathised with the anti-Soviet struggle of the Basmachi movement north of the Amu Darya border. He also assumes that Habibullah had contacts with refugees who had come to Afghanistan (Russian historian Vladimir Boyko estimates around 200,000 in 1929). In early 1922, Habibullah joined a 140-strong unit of mainly Panjshiri ‘volunteers’ that fought the Soviets near Tajikistan’s capital, Dushanbe, led by a Mawlawi Abdul Hai.
In those first years of his rule, Amanullah – the only ruler at the time of an independent Central Asian Muslim country – harboured aspirations to become the leader of the whole region. He also sympathised with his colleague Muhammad Alam Khan, the Amir of Bukhara, who had been deposed by the Soviets in 1920 and fled to Afghanistan a year later, where he was given accommodation not far from where Habibullah Kalakani’s father worked. Meanwhile, the supporters of the Amir of Bukhara continued a guerrilla war in his home country. So it can be assumed that the ‘volunteers’ that Habibullah joined, had gone with King Amanullah’s blessing.
Not after long, however, Amanullah stopped his support for the Basmachi because he did not want to ruin vital relations with the Soviet Union (and possibly because he considered the Amir of Bukhara as a potential competitor for the lead role in Central Asia). Abdul Hai, the leader of the ‘volunteers,’ was arrested upon his return to Afghanistan, as was Habibullah who had returned to Kalakan. He soon managed to escape and became a highwayman – “half soldier, half bandit,” as Abdulloev put it.
In 1924, Habibullah is said to have joined the Mangal uprising in the Khost area, led by a Mullah Abdullah, better known as Mulla Lang (the Lame Mulla). According to Afghan historian Nazif Shahrani the uprising was triggered by a dispute over a child marriage, which Amanullah had abolished. The uprising was suppressed in January 1925 and Mulla Lang was captured and executed in Kabul. After that, Habibullah spent some years in Peshawar where he was said to have worked in a tea house (although other sources say he owned it). Other reports say that he was involved in robbery and did some jail time in Parachinar in British India. In 1928, he returned to Afghanistan.
According to Abdulloev, upon his return Habibullah attracted the attention of anti-Amanullah circles, particularly the supporters of Amanullah’s uncle Nasrullah. Nasrullah had been nayeb us-saltana (viceroy) to Amanullah’s father Habibullah I and heir apparent, but was deposed and arrested by Amanullah after his father’s assassination and accused of having been behind it. Nasrullah died while detained in the Kabul palace in 1920. Abdulloev obviously believes that Habibullah Kalakani’s later victorious raid on Kabul was not of his own making alone.
Back in Afghanistan, Habibullah Kalakani is said to have offered his services to Amanullah first who, in November 1928, was facing another uprising, this time by segments of the eastern Shinwari tribe about taxation. Amanullah, facing army desertions, accepted Habibullah’s offer, made him colonel and sent him weapons through an intermediary. But again, Habibullah joined the rebels. (9)
The two 1929 opponents: Habibullah II on a 2016 poster… Source: Twitter
‘Social revolutionary’ or ‘fundamentalist’?
The new king ruled as Habibullah II. With this name, he puts himself in line with Amanullah’s father, the murdered Amir Habibullah – or Habibullah I – in a side-blow at Amanullah, as some sources suspect that Amanullah supporters were behind the assassination. (10) When in power, Habibullah II immediately revoked Amanullah’s progressive reforms. (11) He made Sharia the only law of the land, ordered that men should not shave and should wear the turban again, and women the hijab (under Amanullah this had been banned for government officials’ wives). He decreed that women should not to leave the house without a mahram, closed girls (and many other) schools and banned the teaching of “kafir languages” to Muslim children (these rules are quoted from his newspaper Habib ul-Islam, here). He also called home the first group of Afghan female students who had been sent to Turkey. He abolished the ministries of education and justice because, US historian Vartan Gregorian writes, he considered them unnecessary and an infringement of the authorities of the clergy. His fighters had free reign to loot and kill, and even in the foreword of his ‘autobiography,’ his rule is referred to as the “Reign of Terror.”
Some authors call Habibullah a “fundamentalist” for his anti-reform course. French author Olivier Roy, for instance, in his standard work Islam and Resistance in Afghanistan (1990), calls him the “candidate of a fundamentalist coalition,” because non-Tajik ‘tribes’ and wide segments of the Islamic clergy supported him (or, more precisely, opposed Amanullah). Gregorian writes that Habibullah saw himself as a representative of the “true faith,” which had been compromised by Amanullah’s innovation. This assessment was shared by a number of Afghans when the issue of reburial came up recently; they accused Habibullah II of ‘Talebanish’ policies. (12) In an interesting contrast, some contemporary Soviet authors celebrated Habibullah II as a “social revolutionary,” as he had toppled the “feudal” Pashtun aristocracy. They probably had not forgiven Amanullah for his support for the Basmachi and the Amir of Bukhara, although officially relations were cordial.
… and Amanullah the reformer-king, with Queen Soraya.
After Habibullah’s take-over of Kabul, emigrants from Soviet Central Asia who had been unhappy about Amanullah’s appeasement policies vis-à-vis the Soviet Union, took his side. Some of the most important surviving Basmachi leaders were in Afghanistan as they had been viciously pursued by Soviet troops. These included Ibrahim Bek, an Uzbek from eastern Bukhara, who had come in 1926 and the Turkmen Junaid Khan who had crossed over in 1928 and was now living in Herat. Both declared their support for Habibullah II and supported him with fighters. But, they also profited from Habibullah II’s support and were able to invigorate their rebellion on Soviet territory (see, for example, this 27 May 1929 Chicago Tribune report).
In Afghanistan, Habibullah sent Ibrahim’s men to fight the Hazaras who still supported Amanullah, mainly because his 1919 decree abolishing slavery in 1919 had particularly improved their lives (see here). When, in 1929, Amanullah supporters marched into Northern Afghanistan and took Mazar with Soviet support, 900 of Ibrahim Beg’s and Junaid Khan’s fighters were mobilised to bolster Habibullah’s deputy and minister of war, Sayyed Hossain (who was executed with him later). In the last days of Habibullah’s nine-month reign, Boyko writes, Ibrahim functioned as a quasi-chief of the garrison in Khanabad (in today’s Kunduz province), then capital of Qataghan province.
… and from king to an unkind death
Habibullah’s rule soon came under threat, as the Pashtuns tribes had revolted against Amanullah and not in support of him. They were against a non-Pashtun on the Kabul throne; the Suleimankhel even proclaimed their leader the new monarch in Ghazni. Amanullah’s former minister of war, Muhammad Nader Khan, who had quit this post in 1924, returned from exile and challenged Habibullah II as early as March 1929 to seek legitimacy not only from the religious clergy (which he had received) but also from the tribal chiefs. Habibullah responded by arresting all members of Nader’s family and putting a bounty on his head. Under these circumstances, Nader and his brother Shah Mahmud (a later prime minister who Habibullah left as governor in Gardez) were able to mobilise the tribes one by one, starting in the southeast. Months of fighting started, with changing luck on both sides, but in September the tribal forces started to beleaguer Kabul.
Habibullah II finally fled to Jabal us-Seraj on 12 October 1929. Pursued by Nader’s troops, he surrendered a few days later, with Nader’s assurance that his life would be spared. Instead, on 1 November 1929, he and 13 of his closest allies were shot dead, then stoned and publicly displayed at the gallows and later unceremoniously buried. Nader, who as Nader Shah had become the new ruler, later said that he had forgiven the ‘Bandit King,’ but that the tribal leaders supporting him had demanded that the ‘traitor’ die. (13)
Habibullah II’s relatively quick overthrow was also a heavy blow, if not the death stroke, for the Basmachis in Soviet Central Asia, as it deprived them of their hinterland. Nader Shah, after a short period (during which Ibrahim was assistant governor in Mazar-e Sharif), turned against them on Afghan soil and began pushing them over the Amu Darya border in 1930.
Some wonder why the reburial and rehabilitation of a ruler long dead still has the potential to stir such strong emotions when the country is struggling with more acute problems, from its ailing economy to the on-going war. It is because competing narratives about historical events sometimes are also put into current political context.
The scuffles around Habibullah II remains and his reburial place broke out not long after Afghanistan’s independence day. On that day, plenty of portraits were shown at official ceremonies across the country of the man he had toppled – reformer-King Amanullah. It was Amanullah who, as a result of the short Third Anglo-Afghan War in 1919, had returned the country to full independence. (As a result of a series of treaties in the nineteenth century, it had formally been independent, but its foreign relations had been under the control of the British Viceroy in India, in exchange for significant British subsidies.) The war resulted in the Anglo-Afghan Treaty of Rawalpindi, which was concluded on 19 August 1919 and has since been celebrated as the country’s independence day.
But not everyone shares the narrative of the reformer versus the anti-reformer. Hashmat Mosleh, a former advisor to President Burhanuddin Rabbani, for example, juxtaposes Habibullah’s religiously motivated resistance to what he considers Amanullah’s secular, Westernising modernisation. In a recent op-ed for the al-Jazeera website, he stated:
For the Tajiks and the religious people of Afghanistan, Kalakani was a devout Muslim who opposed the secular policies of the “[W]esternised” Amanullah. He led an Islamic rebellion against Amanullah, who had unveiled his wife and ordered Afghans to wear [W]estern clothes.
This statement also indirectly puts the historical figure of Habibullah Kalakani into a modern context, as it also can be read both as a reference to the mujahedin’s struggle against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s (that also was legitimised as a modernisation project), but also as a side-shot against the current president, with his Western-backed reform agenda.
As Afghanistan’s politics become increasingly ethnicised again, ethnic divides tend to supersede political conflicts. On one hand, the current president is accused of aiming at establishing a “donor-friendly Ghilzai Pashtun administration.” On the other hand, Pashtuns from tribal Paktia now also demand a state funeral for the last communist president Najibullah (murdered in 1996, when the Taleban took Kabul), who was born in their province – although they had fought his regime (a media report here). In 1929, the tribal contingents that helped Nader Khan overthrow the ‘son of the water carrier’ had come from their area, the Afghan southeast – a fact still widely referred to with pride there. The same ethnocentric impulse seems to be behind former President Karzai’s impromptu reply to a question about the Habibullah affair when received by fellow Afghans on a trip abroad, where he asked back, ironically or not, “Mullah Muhammad Omar also was a king, wasn’t he?” (shown in this video).
The supporters of Habibullah II, in turn, contrasted the obstacles they faced to the 2009 state reburial of former president Muhammad Daud (1973–78) who also was a Pashtun (see media reporting here) which they allege shows that the state favours that ethnic group. Finally, in the eyes of some involved in this controversy, the Tajiks-versus-Pashtuns constellation during the end stage of Habibullah II’s reign resembles the current one between the two feuding camps in the NUG (see AAN analysis here and here) – which is in fact about access to power. The conflict over Shahr Ara Hill has additionally pulled in the Uzbeks who, through Dostum, are part of the unbeloved government.
As these examples show, conflicts over historical issues interpreted as ethnic conflict still have a strong mobilising effect. But often they camouflage factional conflicts over power or even deep societal cleavages, like the one between modernisers and conservatives which has shaped much of Afghanistan’s history in the twentieth century.
Apart from the sources cited in the text, the author also used Ludwig W. Adamec’s famous Who’s Who of Afghanistan (Graz, 1975) for the compilation of Habibullah Kalakani’s biographical details.
(1) [amended on 18 September 2016: I use Habibullah “II” – a European terminology – as a shorthand, to distinguish from Amir Habibullah (I) and in order to avoid ethnicising. Habibullah from Kalakan also refers to Amir Habibullah I, by distancing himself from his predecessor Amanullah. More about this further down in the text.]
(2) Media reports have varied on how many coffins there were. A photo on the Daily Mail website shows 16 coffins. Louis Dupree wrote in his seminal work on Afghanistan that 17 of Habibullah’s lieutenants had been executed together with him (Afghanistan, 1980 edition, 459). Historical photos however show 13 people at the gallows, including Habibullah (see here, with names added in Dari handwriting, from the British Museum collection).
(3) Recent grievances include President Ghani’s perceived sidelining of the former (Tajik) mujahedin who had supported Abdullah in the 2014 elections and expected to be rewarded (see for example Ismail Khan’s statement here). Since 2015, leading former mujahedin commanders had frequently gathered to make their voice heard and demand more say in the government, for example, after a US airstrike targeted a local commander’s weapons depot in Parwan, after they felt the government had blundered during the Taleban’s capture of Kunduz and generally vis-à-vis the Taleban threat.
(4) According to Soma Mukherjee, Royal Mughal Ladies and Their Contributions, New Delhi 2001 (p 208) several female members of Babur’s family had gardens created in Kabul. There were originally eight or nine gardens in the city. See also Farzana Moon, Babur: The First Moghul in India, New Delhi 1997. Babur had also commissioned Idgah mosque, Kabul’s second largest.
(5) The often-nomadic Turkic and Mongol tribes mixed when they came to Central Asia, both among themselves and with the local, mainly Iranian, population. Some of the tribes made their (Turkic) Chaghatay dialect the standard language at the court and in (Turkic) literature. It later morphed into Uzbeki. Others, like Babur, preferred Persian but were often bilingual. Contemporary Uzbeks call Babur’s line the Gurkani, which goes back to the Mongol word for “son in law” (this refers Timur, aka Tamerlan, and Chengiz Khan, of whom Timur was – metaphorically – the son-in-law). Babur actually was kicked out of his fiefdom around the Ferghana, Samarkand and Bukhara by another Uzbek tribe, the Shaibani.
(6) The only other non-Pashtun head of state of Afghanistan was Prof Borhanuddin Rabbani, who served first as interim president and then as president of the Islamic State of Afghanistan (ISA) between 1992 and 1996. After the Taleban conquest of Kabul, he formally kept this position, but resided elsewhere (in Taloqan, Faizabad and Dushanbe subsequently). He returned to Kabul after the Taleban regime was toppled in 2001, initially expecting to be reinstalled but ultimately vacating the position in favour of Hamed Karzai in December 2001. Like Habibullah Kalakani, he was a Tajik, but from Badakhshan.
(7) In academia, Habibullah ‘autobiography,’ titled “My Life: From Brigand to King” (first English version 1936, London), is not considered an original source (for example by Leon Poullada, Reform and Rebellion in Afghanistan, 1973, and Nazif Shahrani). The foreword claims the text is a translation by a “Persian-knowing scholar” of the original notes of a surviving companion of Habibullah Kalakani, one Jamal Gul, who had supposedly been together with him since childhood and was now “roaming about in Europe as a Man of no Country.” The text is told in the first person singular, and the translator remains anonymous (he claims he did not want to “uselessly intrude and confuse the essential story” but admits that he introduced “some Latin phrases here and there . . . for the accommodation of difficult Oriental expressions into more familiar European terminology”). The book, however, is fully English in style and reads like a thrilling adventure story rather than an autobiography. (The author has used the 1990 edition by Octagon Press in London.)
(8) Quoted from a biographical note on Habibullah by the Tajik historian Kamoludin Abdulloev (in Russian) who uses Khalili’s book (which we do not have access to and cannot say when it was first published). For this book, Abdulloev calls Khalili “Habibullah’s biographer.” Some translate the term “eyar” in its title also as “hero” or “knight.”
Khalili was Habibullah Kalakani’s junior by 17 years. He must have known him in the latter’s early 20s, before he joined the army around 1919. Khalili – whose father had been executed under Amanullah – also held positions in Habibullah II’s government.
(9) According to Poullada, this was a result of a blunder by Amanullah: He cites an informant whom he interviewed in 1967 in Kabul, who recounted how Habibullah had called Amanullah over the phone and had pretended to be the King’s interlocutor. He told the king that he had ‘the bandit’ and his men surrounded – to test the king’s reliability. When Amanullah ordered him arrested, Habibullah revealed himself and turned his weapons on the king. The story may well be a folk tale; what is clear is that a few months later, in mid-January 1929, Habibullah Kalakani’s men seized Kabul. By that time, Amanullah had already fled and put his half-brother Enayatullah in his place; he only ruled for a few days.
(10) Poullada, Dupree and Fraser-Tytler – all authors of standard works about Afghanistan – do not rule out a possible role of Amanullah or Amanullah supporters in his father’s killing.
(11) [amended on 18 September 2016: Amanullah also revoked some of his own reforms earlier, in 1924 and – in a last ditch attempt, already facing Habibullah’s and others’ revolts – in late 1928. The latter came after a new set of reforms he suggested after he returned from his long trip to Europe (he also visited Egypt). But he tried to stick to core reforms – in the legal field and in education, including girls’ education.
(12) This is somewhat unfair to the term, as US scholar James Caron – a Pashto speaker and currently at SOAS London – showed in his chapter “Taleban, Real and Imagined,” in the 2012 book Under the Drones, edited by Shahzad Bashir and Robert D. Crews. He argues that “taleb” in the early twentieth century referred to a “romantic countercultural social type,” a critical voice who performed poetry at “taleb parties,” while often mocking the rich (and ogling girls).
(13) General Nader Khan became the new king, Nader Shah. He ruled from 1929 to 1933, until he was assassinated himself. Nader Shah followed a course of “selective modernisation” (a term used by US historian Vartan Gregorian in his 1969 standard oeuvre The Emergence of Modern Afghanistan) by trying not to repeat Amanullah’s mistake of antagonising the conservatives. As a result of his killing of Habibullah Kalakani, other uprisings occurred in Kohestan, now against the new king; the biggest was in 1930, under a leader named Purdel (Dupree, 460).
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020